On March 9, 2011, Steve Redzikowski, co-owner and chef of Oak at Fourteenth, stood on the street in disbelief. The restaurant that he and his partner, Bryan Dayton, had opened four months prior in Boulder, was smoldering, the thick surges of smoke emblazoning the downtown Boulder skyline. It would take nearly nine months -- and over 1 million dollars -- to resurrect it from the ashes.
"I remember being across the street and seeing the smoke, but no physical fire, and then the sprinklers came on, and I knew we were in trouble," recalls Redzikowski. And when the firefighters climbed to the roof, clad with chainsaws, he realized that "trouble" was an understatement.
Still, both he and Dayton, who also directs the inspiring wine, beer, cocktail and housemade soda program at Oak, were optimistic that the fire, which began in the restaurant's hood system, would sideline them for just a few weeks, maybe a month. They waited, patiently, for answers, waited patiently to get back into the open kitchen, which is stroked by a wood-fired oven. But little did they know that they'd have to rebuild Oak from the ground up. "Everything had to be replaced, with the exception of the beams. We had no idea we were going to have to have to rip everything out, and it was pretty much starting from scratch, much like opening a new restaurant," says Redzikowski. The saving grace, he adds, was the fact that he had business interruption insurance, which paid his and Dayton's employees their salary averages. "Because of that, we were able to retain about 85 percent of our employees, which was tremendous," he says.
But Redzikowski admits that he went through a period of depression. "For the first four months, I was just in shock, and I definitely went through a dark period. I was completely lost...I'd never not worked," he says. But as he and Dayton continued to spend their days with insurance companies, they began to harbor hope. "Once we were able to see that we could make a comeback, we started concentrating on the tweaks we could make to become more efficient the second time around, but when we reopened, it was still a bit unreal," he admits, so much so that "I nearly cried in front of my cooks." Even now, he says, "it's a bit of a blur."
He does, however, recall a few things that stuck in his brain while he and Dayton were rebuilding: "You can't run frisee on a menu in Boulder, because people think it's too scratchy; you can put just about everything else on the menu, just as long as the verbiage is written the right way; and don't do your take on the classic and call it by its classic name -- biscuits and gravy, for example -- because if it's not the classic, people will call you out on it."
And now that he and Dayton have hit their one-year milestone -- Oak reopened on December 14, 2011 -- Redzikowski says that he's gleaned a few more insights: "Never take for granted a busy night -- there's nothing better than being busy," he warns. He tells his cooks, too, that restaurant reviews are secondary to the feedback of guests. "If you're filling seats, and it's busy, that's what runs deep with these guys. We've got fourteen staffers in the kitchen, and they're all beasts -- and they realize, as do I, that Boulder has been really great to us -- everyone has."
Redzikowski, whose culinary pedigree also includes coveted mileage at Frasca Food and Wine, Jean-Georges, Le Cirque, the Little Nell and Cyrus, says, too, that he's learned to delegate. "My main sous chef, Vincent Burns, is amazing, and I've learned to really trust him and let go of some of my responsibilities -- it's freed me up to see the bigger picture -- and when you put your trust in your staff, that's when a restaurant thrives," he explains, noting, too, that his line is bereft of egos "We're all on the same page here. No one thinks they're better than anyone else. We're here to cook and dominate service, and everyone is here because they're passionate and want to build a career. These guys aren't here for the paycheck."
And since rising up from the ashes, Redzikowski has more confidence in his menu, too, significantly expanding it and adding a slew of shared plates to complement the big ones. "The menu has become a lot larger, and I've learned that I can bring in just about any product so long as we're smart about it. You have to use your head, and you can't abuse your ingredients. We have to run a business, but we also want to offer value, so we meet our guests in the middle," says the chef, adding that his "goal is to keep dishes that guests can relate to, along with dishes that on one else on Pearl Street is doing -- combinations that make you wonder how they're going to play out, and then, once you eat them, realizing that they work really well together."
For his part, Dayton says that Oak has "really it its stride" since reopening. "We've changed the menu a lot," he echoes, and the "accolades have been great, but I'm most proud of the team that I've put together," he says. "Both the front-of-the-house and back has really taken off, especially recently, and we've hit our groove and have a culture that we really enjoy."
The staff, stresses Dayton, "has a terrific work ethnic, and they can see the vision that Steve and I have created -- to provide an amazing guest experience every single night. That's in our our heart and soul, and we really believe in that. It's awesome."
But, he, too, was nervous about the second installment of Oak. "There was definitely a lot of apprehension," he admits. "I remember unlocking the door and wondering if anyone was going to come in, or whether we were going to get beaten up." The second time around, he confesses, was "definitely more difficult than the first."
And like his partner in Oak, Dayton has learned what works -- and what doesn't. "Our cocktail program has been successful from day one, but we've really increased our non-alcoholic soda program. It's fun, it's different and everyone likes effervescent sodas," he says. As for his cocktails, Dayton explains that his bartending style is simple. "It's esoteric, but simple. We just want to make really great, consistent, well-balanced cocktails, and our bar team is killing it."
He notes, too, a change in alcoholic trends: "We haven't made a lot of changes, but we are incorporating more low alcohols," mainly, he says, "because with low-alcohol cocktails, people can enjoy a lot more of them without getting blasted. I think the low-alcohol trend is going to kick along for a while."
And it certainly appears that one year after that devastating fire, Oak will be around for a long time to come. "I feel very positive about how things are going," says Dayton. "I'm super-stoked about our team, what we've accomplished and where we're going."
That includes Denver. Next year, in the spring, Dayton and Redzikowski will open Acorn in the Source in River North. "Like the name implies, we'll serve little nuggets from the tree," says Redzikowski. "We'll have smaller plates and a smaller place in general," and, he notes, the space will be more "grittier and urban" than its Boulder counterpart.
But while you're waiting for Acorn to get its roots, make a dinner date at Oak. Redzikowski's menu -- and Dayton's cocktails -- are better than ever. And you can see what's cooking (and what guests are drinking) on the next page, which includes an abbreviated culinary gallery of their dishes and drinks.
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